Gallant sits at a large and rounded table in Jue Lan Club’s most private VIP room, tucked upstairs, isolated. Surrounding him are glass cubbies showcasing bottles of alcohol, each labelled as a famous regular’s chosen beverage. It would be pointless to namedrop them because there is only one Gallant, and Gallant has spent too much time reconciling just being himself to worry about what other people have done. “I definitely don’t think about who I want to emulate,” the 27-year-old R&B artist says. “I don’t even think that’s possible.”
This room is called the Forbidden Room, but Gallant is as open as they come. He mentions how tired he is, having just woken up an hour before, but it’s the kind of exhaustion that is earned, as he’s in the middle of touring North America alongside Sabrina Claudio on her Truth Is Tour. In about an hour, 40 or so people will pack into the Warhol Room down the hallway for a private listening session of his upcoming album Sweet Insomnia. Gallant’s sophomore offering will be released to everybody else on Oct. 25, and he is finally at peace with it.
The Warhol Room is dim, which is appropriate because listening to Sweet Insomnia feels like staggering through a dream. Gallant mostly keeps to himself in the back-corner booth unless somebody approaches him, and then he smiles widely and expresses gratitude. He doesn’t totally come out of his shell, though, until it is time to introduce his new music. He discloses that this evening feels something like a homecoming. He was raised in Columbia, Maryland, but he attended NYU. It was there, he explains, he experienced depression. That was compounded by frustration over not being able to actualise what was bubbling inside of him.
Revisiting New York City with Sweet Insomnia in his back pocket is the payoff.
While others are listening to the album’s 13 tracks, swaying and clapping and whooping in approval, Gallant can exhale. They hear songs to get lost in, but he hears everything he has navigated through to find himself here. He uses the word “bittersweet” the most when talking about Sweet Insomnia (“I put the ‘insomnia’ with the ‘sweet’ because I also noticed that every lyric on there was about something being bittersweet—not 100 per cent positive and optimistic, not 100 per cent cynical”). Right now is sweet.
The time between his debut full-length album Ology’s release in April 2016, which was nominated at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards for Best Urban Contemporary Album, up until November of last year was more bitter and laced with trial and error. Before Nov. 2018, Gallant had taken two stabs at trying to make his sophomore album. He met with different producers, tried to make the music he heard in his head with people outside of his usual circles. He ended up cancelling his Too Good To Be Tour on Sept. 28, 2018, because the music just wasn’t there. For about a year, nothing was working. He was stuck.
“It was tough,” he says. “It definitely gave me a little bit of an identity crisis because that’s the way that I communicate with the rest of the world. I really, ever since I was a kid, I never really had anything else that was ‘me’ except for making music alone in my bedroom.”
Gallant says that his depression is “better now” than when he was first using music to work through it, but “still creeps up, like you’re always gonna have a certain worldview, and if it’s more of a cynical worldview, then that’s what it’s gonna be.” However, the process of crafting Sweet Insomnia has forced him to question his lifelong tendencies. That meant branching out and collaborating with the likes of 6LACK (featured on the album’s title track) and Genuwine (featured in the “Sleep On It” music video), while also sticking with tried-and-true producing partner STINT. It also meant looking internally. The result was apparent right away in lead single “Sharpest Edges,” which dropped in June.
“I feel like by challenging that worldview; it put me in the habit of writing the types of songs with the lyrical content that ‘Sharpest Edges’ has,” he says, “which is like you’re looking at the world with like an X-ray lens. So, you’re seeing people with diseases inside, but you’re also seeing human beings. And it’s like you’re seeing all sides of what the possibilities could end up as, but you don’t necessarily need to zero in and focus on all the negative shit. Because it’s always gonna be able to be paired with something that’s a little bit more optimistic. I think that process of challenging all my negative thoughts, I wouldn’t have landed on the bittersweet lyrical theme if it weren’t for that—and it probably wouldn’t be called Sweet Insomnia.”
This second album, he says, is much more emotional and personal than Ology, which he deemed analytical and self-critical. He’s asked what word ending in -ology best describes Sweet Insomnia. He chooses the word chronology.
“There’s a timeline,” he explains. “It’s kind of in chronological order, a little bit. It’s chronological in progression … It’s less of a picture of me from far away, and it’s more—you have to discern and decide what it is. … It just, I think, gives a better idea of the kind of person I am and just puts you a little bit more, in reality, the same way that we experience it as humans on the earth instead of an abstract type of thing.”
In order to construct an authentic, cohesive close-up, Gallant took bits and pieces of specific experiences, which unintentionally calls back to a lyric from his 2017 single “Cave Me In” with Eric Nam and Tablo: “What used to make your heart sing a hit, sing a smash / Will make you wanna hit, wanna smash / Everything that you had into pieces / But love becomes clear when in pieces.”
Gallant had to break it all down in order to build himself back up.
Growing up, he could be found alone in his bedroom and making music out of necessity because, otherwise, he was mostly mute. His biggest dream was to become a voiceover actor for cartoons, which he has fulfilled on We Bare Bears, and his first-love adoration for cartoons seeped into Sweet Insomnia by way of writing “Sleep On It” while watching DuckTales on DisneyXD. And actually, in a more metaphorical sense, he is a voiceover actor whose lyrical material favours fact over fiction. Even after his singing voice has taken him around the world and everything he has been exposed to or evolved from. As a result, he chose to pull from childhood stories he has been carrying around with him and put them to a sound inspired by the artists he found comfort in as a kid on D.C. radio, such as Toni Braxton and Babyface.
“I come from a place where I just want to put things together that I like and have the satisfaction of knowing that I was the person who put those two things together,” he says. Sweet Insomnia, among other things, is a case study on what can happen when two seemingly contradicting things find a way to coexist. No example of that is more prevalent than the boy he used to be and the man he is now.
The connection between Gallant’s 2014 EP Zebra and “Hips,” the eighth track on Sweet Insomnia, illustrates that concept.
The cover art for Zebra is a photo from a childhood birthday party and prominently features a young girl whom Gallant had a crush on as a young boy. When the EP came out, that girl reached out to Gallant asking if it was really her on the cover.
“And it freaked me out for some reason,” he says. “Shut me down. Because I started thinking about, oh, you write things and then people from your past or your current friends, whatever, your family, hears it and they think one thing and then you’re gonna have to have a dialogue. I feel like on that same tip of just evolution and growth. It made sense for me to just try and embrace that a little bit more. Even if it’s like a current relationship, it’s like, why not just air those grievances on wax and try to be a little bit more transparent?”
Instead of clamming up again, Gallant wrote “Hips” and accepted whatever may come from it.
“This song ‘Hips’ from the album has that nostalgic feel that lent itself to that kind of anecdote,” he says. “There was this girl from my childhood that I ran around with for a bit—always had a bunch of visions in my head about how the two of us could be together, neither of us really fit in with the crowd. In my head, it seemed like the perfect thing. … She ended up getting with my best friend at the time, and I went kind of cold—pretended not to ever feel that way about her— which is funny to think about now as an adult because that’s such kid-level shit. But something about the way the music sounded made me want to completely revisit that small period of time, even if it was years too late.”
That is just one instance of the healing Sweet Insomnia has facilitated. Another one came at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom, three days after Jue Lan Club.
Watching Gallant perform his 45-minute Truth Is Tour set, it’s clear why he was worn out at Jue Lan Club: he gives everything he has on stage. Depression can’t touch him. In fact, nothing can given how acrobatic he is: contorting almost involuntarily, throwing his jacket in the air, hoisting himself, the microphone stand and stool into the air too. It’s as if everything he had been discussing is actively purging from his body. He performs “Sharpest Edges,” and there’s a line in the second verse that stands out: “Usually I just isolate myself / And try not to think about what I’m missing.”
At Hammerstein, he doesn’t miss a beat. There is overwhelming evidence that isolated is the last thing in the world Gallant wants to be. He’s ready to lay his complicated cards on the table through the X-ray lens of Sweet Insomnia, and he wants whoever is on the other side to feel him reaching out. “I hope they really feel like they got the handshake,” he says. “I hope that they walk away being like, ‘Oh, OK. I get it now.’”